When a woman is hit like a deer in headlights by perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms, she often is at her most vulnerable. With almost no warning or often without any foreboding sharing of information from elder women or healthcare providers, women find themselves sweaty and sleepless, anxious and depressed, dried out and all cried out – with virtually no answers or informed, trusted sources to help them.
Women in this position, at least for the few among us who find the strength to advocate for themselves and seek help, are willing to try almost anything. This often means a succession of visits to conventional medicine practitioners – a tour with stops to the internal medicine doctor, an OB/GYN, maybe second opinions of the former . . . and then this is where most women stop. They frequently give up because these doctors have no real solutions or real education on this critical juncture that all midlife women – basically half of the world’s population – will one day face. All too often, physicians tell these women to exercise more, dress in layers, reduce stress or even grin and bear it until it passes.
For the women who give up on mainstream doctors, they may turn to over-the-counter offerings, like various supplements, teas and other untested and unregulated concoctions, seeking relief from evening primrose oil, “menopause vitamins,” black cohosh and other oils, tinctures, herbs and pills.
Still finding little to no relief, said women then may turn to what may be her final frontier: functional medicine doctors and naturopaths.
Sadly, these practitioners often take advantage of perimenopausal and menopausal women by offering hyperbolic hopes, grandiose promises and incredible cures, usually under the umbrella of “natural,” “customized” or “personalized” care. And it doesn’t come cheap, with repeated rounds of testing, reports, office visits and so much more.
So, are naturopaths and functional medicine doctors the equivalent of healthcare quacks? Are they selling snake oil and preying on legions of vulnerable, desperate midlife women?
What are their credentials?
Naturopathic doctors are not necessarily trained or credentialed. Going into the pool of naturopathic medicine providers is like jumping into a hurricane; one may need to survive the harsh, whipping winds before reaching the more tranquil eye of the storm. There is no universal standard for licensing naturopathic practitioners. Some states require that they attend a four-year program, study basic sciences similar to those taught in medical school and pass a state licensing exam. But others have no training at all, being unskilled, unlicensed and with no education whatsoever.
Functional medicine doctors, on the other hand, have usually completed medical school and then earned additional credentials from functional or alternative medicine organizations, such as The Institute for Functional Medicine.
How do they approach perimenopause or menopause?
If menopause and perimenopause communities on Facebook or Reddit are any indication, functional medicine doctors and naturopaths have an interesting approach to managing midlife hormonal symptoms. Their approach often involves repeated, rigorous testing of hormone levels and other metrics, such as vitamin levels, thyroid counts and much more. Women have left untold numbers of remarks about paying $600-$1,000 for a single office visit. They are frequently “prescribed” expensive vitamins and supplements (some of which they later find could have been purchased online for much less), and they may get compounded hormone treatments (available through compounding pharmacies with which these naturopaths have established agreements or relationships). The compounded hormones are not the same as FDA-approved and regulated hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in the form of pharmaceutical grade gels, patches or sprays, and oral micronized progesterone (or Prometrium).
Naturopaths and functional medicine doctors are said to habitually link perimenopause symptoms with other alleged and unproven conditions, like thyroid issues, gut health and adrenal fatigue.
Science-Based Medicine writes: “The problem with ‘functional medicine’ is that at its core it is close to being as nonsensical as the more ‘obvious’ forms of quackery. It just hides it better, given the number of fancy-sounding laboratory tests.”
Is functional or naturopathic medicine evidence-based?
Conventional medicine is based on years of data and research, including clinical trials, empirical case studies, lab experiments and more. That’s how medicine arrives at standards of care for various conditions, and that’s also how prescribed medicines finally reach the level of consumer access, after efficacy and relative safety are vetted. This is not to say there aren’t problems with “Big Pharma” and that all too many physicians reach for the prescription pad and lowest common denominator too readily before actually listening to and looking at the woman before them in the examination room.
But is functional medicine or naturopathic medicine actually based on proven science? Well, both purport to be more “integrative” and “holistic” than their competition. This is described as “addressing the web-like interconnections of internal physiological factors,” and “seeking a dynamic balance among the internal and external factors in a patient’s body, mind and spirit.”
But this is tantamount to a “get out of jail free” card “for basically anything practitioners want to do,” according to Science-Based Medicine.
Insurance usually doesn’t cover naturopathic or functional medicine.
Going to a naturopath or functional medicine doctor is expensive – and generally not covered by health insurance. Most practitioners don’t (or don’t have the authority to) order conventional blood testing, so they use other means, like saliva testing, in an attempt to build out the spider web of imagined conditions their “patients” are suffering from. Plus, lab tests are not necessary to diagnose perimenopause.
“The reason insurance doesn’t cover most of these tests and that conventional physicians won’t order them is because they are unhelpful, useless and / or not based in science and evidence.”
Some of the tests often recommended or ordered include those for heavy metals, micronutrients, methylation, inflammation, gut permeability, adrenal stress and metabolism. These tests are sometimes followed by the caveat that they are not intended to diagnose or treat a disease or to substitute for a physician’s expertise.
Why don’t they just prescribe regular hormone replacement therapy?
Many women are still afraid to take standard HRT, largely based on the continued reputational damage done from the now-misguided 2002 WHI study, which caused millions of women to abandon hormonal treatment almost overnight. Oncologists like Avrum Bluming are now going ultra-public about the safety and benefits of HRT for the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, including longer-term brain, heart and bone health, as are many gynecologists, women’s health specialists and even psychiatrists. In fact, HRT is now known as the “gold standard” for addressing perimenopause and menopause difficulties, many of which can be life-altering and debilitating.
But naturopaths and functional medicine doctors continue to corral mistruths about HRT’s safety and effectiveness, preying on women’s fears and desire to be “as natural as possible.” Dr. Jen Gunter blows up the confusion they add about “body identical” vs. “bioidentical” hormones in “Stop Using ‘Body Identical’ and ‘Bioidentical’ to Refer to Menopausal Hormone Therapy” in this piece.
One such practice in Metro Atlanta proclaims: “We offer complete counseling and diagnostic testing to help you determine which treatments are right for you. We always prefer to treat patients with the most natural, least invasive therapy possible. Dietary supplements such as Estrovera are effective at relieving the symptoms of menopause. Other therapies such as acupuncture, biofeedback and dietary changes can also have a profound impact on patients’ symptoms.”
This same practice requires a log-in to view the prices of the dozens of supplements they “prescribe.” But a quick online search of Estrovera reveals it costs about $123.00 for 90 pills – about the same or more than what a typical HRT prescription of bioidentical estradiol and progesterone cost without insurance. This product does seem to have mostly positive reviews, but many of the reviews are tainted by women’s expressed fears of going on HRT, trying to stay away from HRT as long as possible, or seeking relief of hot flashes only (when there are 100+ known symptoms of perimenopause that HRT mostly can address, including vasomotor symptoms).
So is a naturopath or functional medicine doctor right for you?
Only you can decide if seeing a naturopath or functional medicine doctor is right for you. In this case, as with all things that are potentially expensive in both time, energy, emotional labor and monetary cost, buyer beware.
Given the increasing amount of evidence about the tried-and-true solutions for perimenopausal symptoms, those with the greatest amount of efficacy remain FDA-approved HRT and low-dose antidepressants (for those who can’t or won’t use HRT, or for those who still have breakthrough anxiety, depression or insomnia).
Supplements, vitamins, exercise and nutrition have their place in the total continuum of well-being, whether you’re perimenopausal or not. These can be adjuncts to HRT, or in the case of exercise and nutrition as the foundation of health, serve as building blocks.
But there is little defensible grounds for paying hundreds or thousands of dollars on minimally proven – or even outright disproven – homeopathic “prescriptions” to treat menopause and perimenopause.
I recently had the privilege of being featured on Menopause Coach Kitty Anderson’s YouTube Channel, Create a Menopause Recovery in the video titled “Keisha Is a Black Woman Using HRT in the United States: Perimenopause Was Traumatic Without HRT!”
I responded to Kitty’s call for women of color to come forward and share their experiences of recovery from perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms, especially those who are using hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I actually encountered Kitty Anderson before; I enlisted her help to coach me through some continued challenges I was facing after I had started HRT months before. I even featured her on The Real Peri Meno blog in the post “Kitty Anderson: Menopause As a Social Justice Issue,”profiling her own journey as a menopausal woman who uses HRT herself and her experiences in becoming an expert on the topic.
My journey, from the process of realizing I was perimenopausal and not suffering from some other malady, and the maze I went through in navigating the medical system, is here on my blog on the post titled “Shocked By Perimenopause? I Was, Too.”
I wish more Black women (and women in general) would go public about their perimenopausal woes and the solutions that are working for them. While I am using HRT, I don’t expect ALL women to do so. But I do explore the reasons why Black women seem less likely to pursue HRT in “Why It Seems Like Black Women Don’t Use HRT.” Using HRT is a highly personal decision, just like choosing to use any prescription medication is.
Please watch / listen to the interview in depth. Here are a few points I considered after the fact that I want to state for the record:
Choose the medical practitioner, healthcare professional or physician who works for and with you! Regardless of color, too. That healthcare advocate who opts to partner with you in your care may not look like you, sound like you or any in way be like you, but they may be exactly what you need at that moment – and as a permanent ally in your long-term care. The best doctors in this journey for me have been an older (60+) white woman and a younger white man. It was a Black gynecologist who really let me down, along with a slew of others.
Be prepared to pivot. No day in perimenopause is guaranteed to be the same. Your symptoms may be well controlled and absent one day, and then they might pipe up the next. That may not necessarily mean that you need to reinvent the wheel, but it does mean that a versatile mindset is more important now than perhaps it has ever been. As symptoms change during perimenopause, and as hormones choose to cause a commotion every now and again (even while on HRT), realize that dosages may change, you may need to add in new medications and you may need to drop things that no longer work for you.
If you speak out about perimenopause, be prepared for . . . silence. When I went public about my perimenopause experience, I knew it was going to require being vulnerable. I didn’t know how people would react or what they would say. So far, in terms of my personal sphere, the response has largely been one of silence. No one I know personally is really asking any questions or sharing any of their experiences, but I know they are reading the material here, taking notes and considering options. I started this blog to help others, even as I continue to help myself in the background.
I am a Black woman.
I am a Black woman in both the traditional, archetypal sense, but I am also a Black woman who has historically been a bit unorthodox, unconventional and different. I am my own person and have never, if not rarely, fit into any standard checkbox, including common, prevailing ideas of what it means to be one.
When I realized I was in perimenopause, after a multi-month torture of horrible symptoms, of which insomnia, low-level anxiety and night sweats were my most intractable problems, I sought answers. Not only did I seek answers from medical professionals, I led the charge by doing my own research. Most of those entrusted to safeguard and care for my health fundamentally were not prepared to do so. Out of nine doctors, only three took me seriously. Of those three, one agreed that it might be perimenopause; one nudged me further to consider it as the absolute diagnosis; and the final one declared it to be so and immediately put me on hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
This process involved reading peer-reviewed studies, scientific publications, results from clinical trials and other rigorous, academic materials. I also mined stories of what real women were experiencing by watching YouTube videos, engaging in online forums, reading blogs and listening to podcasts.
Sadly, most women I know of in real life remain silent about perimenopause and menopause.
In my pre-HRT life and before I began consulting physicians, I explored many natural or easy-to-access things first. As one supplement or tincture failed after another, I began to spot a rather glaring chasm: White women seemed to be using pharmacological agents and treatments way more than Black women. While White women were using HRT to replenish their estrogen, progesterone and sometimes testosterone levels, Black women were using over-the-counter vitamins marketed as menopause remedies, in addition to tinctures that had black cohosh, sage, chamomile and chasteberry (vitex) in them.
While White women were taking antidepressants like low-dose Celexa (citalopram), Lexapro (escitalopram), Zoloft (sertraline), Wellbutrin (bupropion) or Effexor (venlafaxine) for their vasomotor symptoms (night sweats, hot flashes), hormonal anxiety / depression and sleep problems, Black women were taking Nyquil, meditation and St. John’s Wort for the very same constellation of symptoms.
Indeed, in a post that appeared in a Black women’s wellness group I follow, someone asked what women were doing for their perimenopause and menopause symptoms, and some of the responses included: dandelion root tea, black seed oil, turmeric, elderberry, vitamin D, wild yam root, red ginseng, valerian, horny goat weed, dong quai, CoQ10, prunes, flaxseed, primrose oil, hibiscus tea, lemon water, burdock root and cranberry juice.
For those women who look to conventional pharmaceuticals as a last resort (and I was one of those women at one time), a few ideas seem to be consistently hailed by both Black and White women. They include melatonin for sleep, magnesium for sleep and muscle aches, and ashwagandha for anxiety and promoting calm.
But still, there is a definite gulf between the percentage of African-American perimenopausal / menopausal women using prescribed medications and HRT vs. White women in the same boat. While I have not uncovered any research that explores why this is, I have my own hypotheses:
Lack of information. It can be very difficult to get accurate, useful information about perimenopause and menopause, especially if one only seeks out help from her primary care physician and stops there. Most general medicine doctors receive minimal information, if any, about menopause during their medical training. Even OB/GYNs’ training focuses more on birthing babies than treating women beyond the reproductive stage. Many physicians will disregard perimenopausal symptoms and instead link them to stress or burnout, or treat / test them as other problems related to thyroid, migraine disorders, or depression, rather than viewing it is the multifaceted perimenopausal condition that it is.
Dismissive doctors. Even when women perform a root-cause analysis and figure out that their condition is likely perimenopause, their doctor may dismiss this as a possibility, often claiming that the 40-something year-old woman in their office is “too young.” Even though hormonal changes in women begin happening from the mid-30s onward, far too many physicians don’t understand that symptoms of hormone change happen way before periods stop. It also doesn’t help that many Black women don’t appear to be the age that they are. So a 45-year-old Black woman may look 35, but have night sweats, emotional turbulence, migraine headaches, hot flashes and irregular periods – only to be told that she is way too young for perimenopause to be a consideration.
Inadequate medical treatment. Even if a doctor agrees that a woman is in perimenopause, they may prescribe ill-suited solutions, like birth control pills when she really needs HRT. Most patients really respect their doctors’ opinions and believe whatever they recommend to be absolutely valid and true. So, if a perimenopausal woman fares poorly on birth control pills, she may think the problem is not the prescription, but her instead. She may seek no further solutions and wing it from that point on.
Medication stigma. Multitudes of women are prescribed antidepressants when they hit perimenopause and menopause. In the U.S., one out of every four women in their 40s and 50s is on an antidepressant, and the uptick in their use at the time perimenopause happens is likely not accidental. There are many reasons for this, including the rationale that this class of drugs helps with vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats), insomnia, anxiety, depression and panic attacks – all of which are perimenopausal symptoms. And though antidepressants are now used to treat various issues, such as nerve pain, headaches, low libido and smoke cessation, in the Black community, the common idea remains that if someone takes a drug in this class, they must be “crazy.”
Strong Black Woman Syndrome. Black girls are raised to become Strong Black Women. We are groomed and nurtured to believe in ourselves, never trust anyone too much, always be ready to provide for and fend for ourselves, and to “tough out” some of the most irreconcilable and devastating situations, from racism at the workplace and marginalizing beauty standards to everyday micro-aggressions and undeniable assaults on our humanity. Perimenopause is a time of vulnerability, and Black women are not given much space in this society (or in our families or communities) to take that sorely needed time for our own selves and sanity during this phase of life. Sadly, doing so can even seem like a sign of weakness.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can be expensive. Sadly, most women who would really benefit from HRT never receive it. Part of the reason for this is its cost. Honestly, it can be expensive, even for those with ample insurance coverage. Some women are spending at least $70 out of pocket each month for their estradiol patches and oral micronized progesterone capsules, even after insurance pays its part. Others are paying $130 or more a month out of pocket, with no insurance coverage. And some women are spending even more if they pursue alternative HRT routes, such as pellets or custom-compounded HRT. In an inflationary economy and with many vital monthly expenses, and where incomes aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, some just don’t have the financial bandwidth to comfortably afford HRT.
Downplayed by doctors. Sadly, maltreatment within the medical industrial complex is still a major problem for Black patients. All too often, our concerns are sidelined; our pain complaints are maligned as “pill seeking” or complaining; and many of our medical problems just aren’t taken too seriously. Consider how bad White women are treated when seeking help with perimenopause, and for Black women, it’s probably at least 10 times worse. Mainly, it is only the most well-researched, the most valiant and the most well-funded (or willing to spend the funds) women who get proper, timely perimenopause treatment. And by virtue of circumstances, including implicit bias and a lack of healthcare equity, those women who get the care they desperately need usually aren’t Black.
Belief in God. Now, don’t get me wrong. There isn’t a thing wrong with having a belief in a Higher Power, and standing firm and resolute in the promise of healing, restoration and deliverance from our mortal ails as a result. But sometimes our characteristic spirituality and faith cause us to delay treatment and scoff at medical interventions – seeing such as a sign of weakness, a lack of faith and evidence of a soul too focused on worldly, or ephemeral, things. I believe in God, pray every day and feel that God has given human beings the information, capability and talent to create interventions and medicines to treat the frailties of the human condition. I believe that God wants us to have quality of life, not merely quantity of years.
The Real Peri Meno is devoted to all things perimenopause - the science, treatments, care, understanding, personal experiences, relationships, culture and more. The brain child of Keisha D. Edwards, The Real Peri Meno developed out of her own shock-and-awe experience with perimenopause and navigating the disjointed U.S. medical system in search of answers, support and relief.
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